Excerpt for Occupation Child by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Occupation Child

WWII Greece



T. Styppas



Petra Books

Catalogue page

Keywords:

Autobiography, fiction, magical realism, dreams
WWII and Civil War
Europe, Greece, Germany, Canada
Schooling, Childhood, Selfhood
Psychology

PRINT: Bookman 9.5/12, Papyrus
approx. 166,000 words
5.5” x 8.5”
454 p

SMASHWORDS EDITION ISBN 978-1-927032-73-2

Cover photograph:
Tasouli foraging for food, Greece, early 1940s (author’s collection).

Interior illustrations: Athena Moss, 2017.

Editing and design
Peter Geldart, Danielle Aubrey
Petra Books | petrabooks.ca

for
Pamela


So?


So if something at all

is forever the same

in London of then

and Athens of now,

I’ll be looking for you

as I freely wander

on my cobbled paths

my glistening byways

in soft winter rain

of my Athens of now,

and if I tire too much

I’ll just lie down and

after falling asleep

I’ll be sure to find you

wherever you are.

— Tasouli

Contents

Beginning

Occupation

Civil war

Later in the '40s

1950 — 1951

Styppas Returns

Falling

Appendix

Acknowledgements

Illustrations

by Athena Moss


Map

Narration

In this book, a twelve year old boy narrates his story. Born in Greece in 1938, just before the German Occupation started, he insists that he must tell his own story from the very start.

His initial narration occurs in late 1950 and covers the period from his first childhood memory until when he was about 12 years old. By then he had mastered English. He is convinced that he must be the sole narrator and that no one else can relate events as they really happened. Further, he is pedantic and a fanatic oralist, obsessed with the use of language and captivated by dreams. Yet, in subsequent years his recurrent narrations retained a surprising degree of fidelity.

His obsession with dreams and orality led me away from using the conventional quotation marks for conversation, as is often done in novels. I settled on the simplified notation of a short dash (–) after an indentation. Less intrusive for his endless imaginary conversations, the notation also seems to dictate a structure of shorter and simpler sentences for transcribing his childhood speech. I retain this notation for events that took place after the period of 1938-1950, when he was no longer a child. And as the Occupation Child’s dreams and fantasies often become intermingled with reality, I felt obliged to alter or mask the names of some of the people he describes.

I was also faced with the problem of trying to convey the feeling or imagery that certain words created for him when spoken in his childhood language. For some of these words, especially ones used in his early childhood, I stayed with the Greek sounds by using Latin characters in the English context. The Latin characters generally have an accent on the appropriate vowel, to create the Greek word sound. I have to admit that a word such as anεmόnεs still resonates more pleasantly in my ear than the Anglicized ‘anemones’. A few fragments of Greek poetry have also been kept as in the original.

—T.S.

Beginning

A man with a white suit and a white explorer’s casket was walking on the street. I think light rain was falling. I could see the man from the window of a bedroom facing towards the street. I was with my mother.

I said to my mother, pointing to the man:

– Άp`pos.

‘Appos’ is child-talk for άnthropos (man).

– Yes, Yes, anthropos, Tasoύli.

That was my name: Tasouli — little Tassos.

Later my parents told me that I would have been too young to remember something like that, at the age of one.

But I am certain that I do.

Next

I believe that my next memory is my father coming home as a soldier. I am not sure of the year. It was probably 1939 or early 1940, before the Italian invasion in October of 1940 (the war of '40). He had a long knife which I was told later must have been a bayonet, like a rapier. But I remember it had a sheath, more like a long penknife. In Greek a penknife would be called a souyas, but I do not remember that appellation being used. I think the sheath was made from wood, and that long knife closed into its sheath, by a hinge mechanism … like a jackknife. But maybe this was not so. This long jackknife, this sheathed rapier, was always placed on top of the high` dressing cabinet, made of varnished wood with a mirror on the door. In this way, I could not reach it.

I have tried to think of how my father was like then. I have difficulty remembering. I felt he was someone important.

Death

Then I remember my paternal grandfather dying. His name was the same as mine — Tάssos. More formally, he was called Anastάssios. This was in 1940. He had suffered a stroke. He was a very important man and was frequently visited by the doctor at home. A large bright red rubber cooler had been placed on his head. It was filled with ice. The adults said that cooling his head might help with the stroke. He was in a small room at the back of the house, with a bright window opening towards a garden. The door of the room was kept open into the main hall. He was easily visible from the hall. I remember my mother trying to keep me from going to observe him. Maybe she thought it would upset me. But I was not afraid. I was more curious.

Periodically there were sirens blaring. We had to go to underground shelters. I liked the shelters. They had handmade rag carpets (kourelou′des) and kerosene lamps. There were men, women and children sitting around on benches or chairs. I remember being surprised that they were not more talkative. The Greeks usually would be. Each family seemed to be in its own silent world. Perhaps they were worried about what was to come. When the sirens stopped we would go out and walk back home.

Occupation

Bastille

I remember many things about the German Occupation (Katochi′). It would have started in the spring of 1941 and continued until October 1944. During the Occupation, my parents, my father’s three brothers and my father’s mother, my Giagiά (grandmother) Sophia, all lived together on the first floor of a two-storey house, in a district of Athens called Pagrάti. We had moved to Pagrati from Nea Smyrni, from the house that my grandfather had died in. My grandfather, his wife Sophia and their four boys had all escaped during the destruction of Smyrni (Smyrna) in Asia Minor in 1922. Nea Smyrni was the district where most of the refugees from Smyrni and other parts of Asia Minor were concentrated. The house I remember in Nea Smyrni was a large one-storey house, un-crowded by other houses, and with lots of light and sunshine coming in through large windows in all the rooms. The image I have of the house in Nea Smyrni is that it was made of a light or white stone. The house in Pagrati, which we rented, was on a small street and the houses or apartments were much more densely built, close to each other. It was near the main platea of Pagrati, platea Plastira (named after Nikolaos Plastiras).

The house had a hallway leading to the street, which was also shared by a family in the upstairs flat. There was a small garden in the back of this house that extended from a cement courtyard, and an iron spiral staircase went up from the cement courtyard to the apartment on the second floor. However, there was not much sunshine in the little garden because there was a tall wall belonging to the apartment building next to the Bastille, which was two or three storeys high. This wall was made of older worn brick, with plaster coming off the brickwork. It had a grey color and blocked the sun getting in. On the other side of the small courtyard there was a lower stone wall separating us from other apartments with back windows and little balconies with flowers or plants. Our dining room was at the back of the house and faced the little garden and the wall. Yiayia (grandmother) Sophia did not like the sunless back of the house and the wall. She would complain:

– Why did you bring me here, in this Bastille?

The nickname stuck and we would often refer to our house in Pagrati as the ‘Bastille’. It was kind of a humorous code that the adults used.

– I will see you on Saturday at the Bastille, they would say.

I soon learned about the real Bastille. I was proud to have our house named after the famous Parisian prison.

I think the reason the family moved to the Bastille in Pagrati was to improve their chances of finding work and also to get to work more easily, for those who had something to do. Pagrati was pretty well in central Athens while Nea Smyrni seemed a more distant suburb then. Mostly there was no regular work. The family structure was pretty tightly knit, so if anyone had work all family members would be helped. Everything seemed to be shared.

In addition to my parents, my grandmother and my three uncles, there was one other person who was almost like family. She was Kyrά Maria. 'Kyra' is used like 'Mrs.' but in a colloquial, semiformal and respectful form. She was always referred to as Kyra Maria by everybody, including me. She would never be referred to by any member of the family using her last name (which I do not even recall) or without the 'Kyra' appellation before the 'Maria'. She was my grandmother’s faithful household assistant. Kyra Maria would help with many of the heavier jobs, such as the washing of everyone’s clothes which was then done entirely by hand, and all kinds of chores. Yiayia Sophia had somehow found Kyra Maria, who was previously a nun. She had left the nunnery, apparently did not have a close family, and became an important attachment to ours. Yiayia Sophia used to say that she was a good and kindly woman, a saintly woman. Kyra Maria would always refer to my grandmother as "Kyri´a Sophia" (Mrs. Sophia). The distinction between Kyra and Kyria is socially non-trivial, with the latter being the correct, formal appellation most commonly used with a last name. ‘Kyria Sophia’ is a form that can be used to denote respect and familiarity at the same time. I don’t think that these social niceties are much adhered to now, in the modern language of urban Greek Society. Perhaps they helped maintain a structure within the family especially during the Occupation. From my point of view, I remember thinking that Yiayia Sophia was important in the family, since she had her Kyra Maria who she commanded. Of course, Kyra Maria would help all members of the family, and she paid particular attention to me, but it was also clear to me who her boss really was.

A main gathering place for Yiayia Sophia, Kyra Maria and, often for me, was the dining room at the back of the Bastille. As it faced the tall, grey wall it was always dark, but also seemed more protected and somewhat mysterious. In the summer the dining room was cool and in the winter a magάli, a three-legged brazier, was often lit in the evenings. Wood charcoal burned slowly in the open magali. A long, circular, dried orange peel was always placed among the hot coals. It was thought that this prevented noxious fumes from forming, especially, carbon monoxide, the adults would say importantly. The magali with its charcoal and slowly burning orange peel smelled really nice. I could sit there for hours listening to Yiayia Sophia and Kyra Maria talk in slow, low tones. Sometimes I would be treated to a fairy tale and on occasion, in the autumn, a few chestnuts would be put on to roast on the magali.

It was there too that the most important work of the household would be done — the preparation of the food. Because of the scarcity of almost everything, food was prepared from scratch. I can’t remember if flour was rationed, but we had enough to make a type of pasta. They most often made what is now usually bought as orzo. A clean white linen bedsheet would be put on the dining room table. The mass of dough, in a heavy earthenware pot, would be pulled into thin, snake-like extensions, with the palms of their hands. From these snakes Yiayia Sophia and Kyra Maria would make the orzo. Their fingers would move almost faster than the eye could see, as they would spin out the individual, oval, orzo grains one by one. Each little pile they made of spun-out orzo grains would be added to a slowly growing little hill on the white linen on the table. I would be allowed to try to make some orzo grains, but I was never very good at it, so I was mostly content to watch and listen. Next day, the orzo would be cooked. It was cooked with whatever was available, perhaps some tomato, some onion done slowly in olive oil. It was always most delicious.

The men would rarely come in the dining room during these sessions. They were generally engaged in political discussions, in the living room, in the front of the Bastille, perhaps trying to get news on the illegal shortwave radio. My mother used to hover in and out of the dining room, as she also participated in the political discussions with the men in the front of the house. She was, after all, the only young woman in the household and kept her hand in everything that was going on.

Sometimes in the Bastille, the adults became glum and radiated a feeling of fear. This feeling of fear in my parents and other family members created a unpleasant sensation in me. It is difficult to describe — was something in the pit of my stomach and my legs became weak. I still have it today when something bad is happening, but I am not sure it is exactly the same. I could not tell how other children in the family felt as I was the only child there.

A family lived upstairs from us in the Bastille. The father was said to be a retired army Colonel. He talked very little. His wife talked all the time. They had two teenage children, a boy and a girl. The girl, who was older than the boy, was friendly and played the piano. The boy was often away and not at all friendly. It was not clear what he did. They seemed to be fairly well-off considering it was the German Occupation.

Language of Hunger

Hunger was the most pervasive thing I remember during the Occupation. We were always hungry. Being chronically hungry, close to starvation, is very different than the average person in today’s Western world saying "I am hungry". The latter usually means one might have a hunger-like stomach pang that was not there a few hours ago. It is likely to go away after one has eaten enough. What I remember of chronic hunger was a very different feeling. These were not the familiar hunger-like pangs of the generally well-fed of today. Rather, it was a feeling of emptiness. Continual emptiness. And one never felt really well. This feeling unwell was there all the time. You would only notice that you felt better if you had something in your stomach. Even if it was very little.

Of course, there was no meat. If anyone had any meat at all he would immediately be suspected as a collaborator. The Resistance would likely get him or his family sooner or later. Even bread, the staple for the Greeks — that without which life could not really continue — was in very short supply. It is difficult today, in the Western world, to convey the meaning of bread as it was then. Yes, bread was the staple. Yet 'staple' implies that you might have other things to eat that are not a staple. But bread was often the only thing we had to eat. And bread, the staple, was the last thing that remained before starvation. It was the very last thing that stood between life and slow death by starvation.

The demotic Greek word for bread is psom, the affectionate diminutive being psomάki. As a child during the Occupation my big daily question was:

Mamaka, do we have psomaki today?

Having even a little psomaki meant everything. And she would always say:

– Oh yes, Tasouli, we have lots of psomaki today.

But what she would do is cut what she had of the loaf into thinner slices, so it would appear more. I knew she did this, but I was happy that she made the bread seem more for me … ever, ever so happy. For I knew then that I would not die that day. I would live.

Now, English nouns do not ordinarily have diminutives such as suffixes or prefixes. Except for contracted names of persons, in many cases. In Greek, affectionate diminutives are very common, especially in child’s talk. So, psomaki literally means a 'little bread'. But it also takes on an affectionate connotation as one might say a 'little boy'. In those days of great shortage, I would say “Mamaka, could I have a little more psomaki, please?” If she said yes, it would mean to me that my dear little Mamaka would give her little boy a little more bread, so her little boy would live and not die.

In written English “… a little more bread” does not contain an affectionate element in the word ‘bread’. Of course in English speech, under similar circumstances of hunger, one might say “… a little more bread, please” with a certain tonal emphasis on ‘bread’. The voice inflection could then be used to introduce an element of affection for the bread itself. But in Greek, both written and oral, it is the affectionate diminutive suffix of the word psomaki which contains the key emotional element. For it implied to me affection deeply ingrained into that piece of bread. For Occupation Child, the psomaki represented no less than the affection of the child for his mother and of the mother for her child.

There is still more to psomaki. For it can also refer affectionately to a loaf of bread. A whole, un-sliced loaf was the only form of bread that existed. And the daily allotment would be one loaf per family. That is, if loaves were available at the neighborhood baker. If the loaves ran out for good, life would run out.

For me and the people around me during the Occupation, the notion of a loaf of bread being equivalent to a day of life was part of everyday speech. If somebody was very sick and expected to die soon, the conversation I would hear might go something like:

– He doesn’t have many loaves left any more.

– No, maybe enough for a week or two.

And I think people still used that analogy after the Occupation ended. It remained ingrained.

The taste of the loaf of bread that kept us alive is difficult to describe and comprehend now. It was not only hunger that made it taste so good. I am sure of that. The wheat was still harvested often by scythe and ground mostly locally. That flour was then shipped to the starving city and made into loaves of bread by the local baker. The allotted loaf even in the worst days of the Occupation was still warm from the oven, shortages and all. One chewed the slice with its thick crust and soft core. It started to go down into your belly and your hunger, your fear … that terrible fear would subside. It was as if you fell asleep on your mother’s bosom, safe, warm and with a full belly. Your Mamaka loved you. There would be lots of slices from the loaf that day.

Your Mamaka had said so.

And you loved your Mamaka.

So it had to be true.

And it was always my mother, my Mamaka, who fed me what food there was for me. My father, my Baba, probably heroically starved most of the time so I could have a little more. But I think I used Mamaka a lot more when speaking to my Mother than Babaka when speaking to my father. I am not sure if the diminutive affectionate appellations I used to address each of my parents relate to who actually fed me. Maybe it had more to do with their personalities and how I perceived them.

During the Occupation, in Athens animal protein of any kind was very short. I recall that some of the corner grocers still had some slabs of salted cod kept in wooden barrels, probably from Canada. But it would have been a treat to have salted cod. There was some powdered milk and we seemed to get powdered eggs from time to time. The greatest hunger was in 1941-42 (mέgas limόs), when hundreds of thousands died.

Omonia is a central piazza in Athens. The electrical train from Kifisia to Pireus had its main station under the Omonia platea. There were vents from the Underground to the surface. There, children in rags would gather during the cold Athens winter trying to keep warm by huddling together over the vents of the Underground. They seemed to be abandoned and were starving. Some of them were dying and sometimes one had to step over the dying ones to get across the platea. Many had big swollen bellies. I remember one winter day, my mother took me to the Cineac (an indoor movie house) near Omonia and we had to go through these kids. My mother, pulling me by one hand, tried to cover my eyes with her other hand, so I would not see them. I remember thinking my mother’s gesture was unneces­sary. I had already seen the kids before and I was curious about them.

The dying children would talk to me.

They were begging, I suppose.

I wanted to ask them why they had no psomaki.

No psomaki at all it seemed.

But I was dragged away.

Blockos in Pagrati

During the Occupation we were essentially without communications. Very few families had a telephone even before the war. Radio and newspapers were strictly controlled. Censorship was everywhere. People were afraid to say anything in a public place. The person next to you could be an informer or, worse, a Gestapo agent.

But in our neighborhood, we had the urchins — the street urchins of Pagrati. These were rough street kids, mostly in rags and always hungry, probably from very poor families or, perhaps, no families. They seemed to come out of nowhere, out of the street shadows. They seemed to know everything that was going on in the district. Particularly they knew about the movements of the Occupier.

The German-Gestapo system for keeping control during the Occupation was fairly simple and efficient. Suddenly German lightly armed vehicles and soldiers would descend unannounced on a part of a district and totally surround one or more blocks. This part of the district would then be effectively isolated from the rest and no one could get in or out of the blocked area. Presumably they would act on some intelligence about the Resistance or other subversive activity. The adults in the Bastille were saying that there would be house-to-house searches. The residents would all have to line up outside in the street and that the Gestapo would always be a part of these blockades and searches. Some people would just be taken away, generally never to return. Sometimes individuals would be shot on the spot, probably as part of a retaliation program or simply to keep the population terrified. We were lucky. Our own house was never part of a blockade.

However, we were warned by the street urchins about blockades elsewhere in our district. The urchins would suddenly appear shouting blockos sto Pagrati, blockos sto Pagrati (blockade in Pagrati, blockade in Pagrati). I suppose the urchin warnings would give one a chance to try to move or hide anyone who was part of the resistance or who the Gestapo might be specifically looking for. I remember the adults would always look afraid when the urchins would come to our street shouting their warnings.

Their shouting also gave me a feeling of excitement. I wanted to go out and be with the urchins so I too could shout blockos sto Pagrati and be important and warn people. Of course, if I told that to my parents they would never let me and instead restrict me more. So, I never did.

Torture

The adults were always whispering about someone we knew, or somebody who had or was being tortured. Most of the torture was thought to be by the Gestapo or the police, but also by collaborators torturing Resistance members and the Resistance torturing captured collaborators. When the adults were talking about torture their fear showed, and I would get the unpleasant sensation. It was more the way they talked about torture than what they described that caused me to have the unpleasant sensation. A common torture technique was to use a garden hose to inflate the rectum with cold water under pressure. The pain is supposed to be very intense. I imagined the hose to be made of dull-red rubber. This was a common color for garden hoses then. Finger nails were also pulled out regularly and gradual amputations were said to take place. Another technique the adults talked about was that people were made to sit on a block of ice without pants. After a while, the pain became so unbearable that people would confess anything.

There was a woman who was a distant relative named Alexandra. She used to come around the house and I remember her well. She was a middle-aged woman, rather quiet with a lot of fuzzy, grey hair. She was always nice to me. She was some kind of an intellectual, perhaps a writer, but I am not sure. She talked in a quiet voice too, but when she talked to me what she said seemed clear and agreeable. Alexandra was captured. The adults said she was captured because Nazi collaborators had it in for her. She was tortured. My family thought that she was tortured by the collaborators but they were not certain. Maybe it was the Nazis. They said her body was found on a garbage pile. Her breasts had been cut off. Somebody said that garden shears were used.

Finding Alexandra on the garbage was a weird and unpleasant image for me which also confused me. One person I knew had breast cancer but I cannot remember if it was Alexandra or not. Breast cancer would not have been very common then and somehow I had the image of something large in the breast like an orange. Maybe one of the adults had said something to that effect, or it is a later image that I have superimposed in my mind. I remember the reason for my confusion: were Alexandra’s breasts cut off with the garden shears because she had breast cancer? Some of the images from my child’s imagination that I see now, like Alexandra, seem dark with green shadows. But there are some bright colors, like the orange. The images of the adults in the rooms of the Bastille are gray colors but individuals are clearly distinguishable. I easily recall the expressions and gloom of their faces. I have to think harder to recall what their voices sounded like. When I do sometimes recall, I am not sure if the voices as I remember them were from the period of the Occupation or from a later time.

In hushed tones they would discuss who might have been responsible for the disappearances, the tortures and the killings. In Alexandra’s case opinion was divided. It could have been the Gestapo, but someone would have had to be an informant. Leaving her body on a pile of garbage was thought to be more likely the work of the police working with collaborators. They were often thought to be responsible for murders of this type. Of course nobody trusted the police then or for decades after. It was the organ of the Occupiers. The seeds of what was to come, in some ways much worse than the Occupation itself, were already being deeply planted. The adults seemed to sense that.

But who really committed these murders? This was a question that preoccupied me. It was also a question that the adults, who usually knew everything, could not answer. It was all innuendo and fear. The worst fear was that it was us, the Greeks themselves, who were responsible — it could be either the collaborators, or the Resistance. If the murdered person was a leftist — then it was collaborators or right wing groups in the Resistance. If it was a rightist or a collaborator — then the communist Resistance could be responsible.

I started to dream about murders, but I am not certain when the dreams started. By the time I was older there was a pattern to a dream. It was very frightening. It would happen in a series of rooms, always the same rooms, the same emptiness in them, the same locked doors between them, the same lack of windows, the same terror as I wandered from one room to another. It was very difficult to unlock these doors, but I would always manage, only to find a more horrid room than the previous one. The rooms had no furniture, but there were low, wooden cupboards, close to the floors and it was what these cupboards contained that I was forced to discover. I was forced by someone, but I cannot remember now by whom, I cannot see a face or hear a clear voice. The color of the dream was a dark yellow. Maybe the yellow color came from the poor illuminated light in the windowless rooms. But where were these terrifying rooms, and why were they so familiar to me?

First, I thought I had made up the rooms in my imagination. But gradually I placed them in a real location. Across from the Bastille, towards the top of the street there was an apartment building. It probably had only four or five stories, but it seemed very high to me. A moat separated the apartment building from the street, so the first or basement floor was below the level of our street. Our street more or less sloped downward from the apartment towards the Bastille. When one looked towards the apartment building, one could see ivy on its walls, but the walls were a dark yellow, with patches of plaster falling off. The whole apartment building seemed a dark yellow. There was a family I knew in this apartment and my mother knew them. I think they were a 'nice' and educated family, and they had at least one child, a boy about my age. I used to go over to the apartment building and play with that boy. Our games were always nice and I do not remember ever being frightened. Yet, the frightening series of rooms were in the basement of that apartment building. The ending of the dream was always the same. I was forced to open the cupboards and inside I would find a dead body. I can’t remember if it was the same body each time. But finding the dead body was not the most horrifying part. It was the accusation of who had committed the murder. I cannot remember who the accuser was; maybe it was the police, the same police that were capable of doing the killing. But I was certain of one thing: I was convinced of the identity of the murderer.

It was I.

It was I, and I knew it with absolute conviction.

Then I would awake from the nightmare, frightened. Usually I could not get back to sleep.

The reality of the dream was absolute.

It did not happen.

I would try to convince myself of that.

Right after been woken by the dream.

No, it is real. It is real, it is real …

The recall of each step of the nightmare was crystal clear and stark. It was reality. The terror of me having done it remained, even when I stayed wide awake until morning.

For a few years I tried to change the ending of the nightmare by consciously trying to guide my thinking. After my fright would have somewhat subsided, I would stay awake trying to think of scenarios that could change the outcome.

Who else could have been the murderer?

I would tell myself that if I could find out the circumstances of the murder, maybe the ending would be different.

Maybe I could insert people I did not like into the nightmare.

Maybe I could insert the police, the Gestapo, collaborators in my dream … please, anyone!

But it was to no avail.

It is I and I alone who was guilty.

Did I really commit these murders?

Maybe this is the reality.

Perhaps I am just trying to cover it up even now.

I am just trying to suppress the real memory.

The nightmare stayed unmodified, I think, for many years.

Then it went away.

It has not come back.

I am hoping that narrating it here will not bring it back.

Color of freedom

The adults always talked about freedom. It would come when we got rid of the Occupiers. We had a large radio made of polished brown wood with ivory knobs and a magical little green light. I thought that the radio was the most beautiful thing in the Bastille. It made crackling noises and had shortwave reception. It was illegal to receive any shortwave broadcasts from non-occupied countries or clandestine radio. All radios had to be taken into the police and be 'sealed' to prevent that kind of reception. The seal had to show on the radio. If someone was caught receiving illegal broadcasts they could be interrogated, tortured or even shot. But somehow we were getting shortwave reception in the beautiful wooden radio. It was mostly from the BBC short wave broadcast and the reception was very crackly. Family members did not understand English very well and did better in French, but it was only the BBC service that got through. When the broadcast would come everybody would be called around the grand radio with the beautiful controls and the magical little green light. The sound had to be turned right down in case collaborators or police in the street, or maybe in the apartment above, heard something and became suspicious. Between the incessant crackling, the low volume and the foreign language, little seemed to be understood. But every bit of what did get through was endlessly discussed and debated. It did not matter in the end, as the critical turning point in the War finally came. When we learned that Germany had attacked the great Soviet Union we knew that freedom would come. The adults were saying that the Nazis could never defeat the Soviets — in spite of all the Nazi propaganda touting great German victories. Later, we learned that the great America had also entered the war. It had been expected by us. It was just delayed. The adults became even more certain that the Occupation would end and freedom would come.

I thought a great deal about what freedom would be like. It was probably because the adults talked about it so much. I knew it would be wonderful because of how the adults spoke the word and their expression when they did. But I did not understand what the word meant. At some point I developed an image in my mind. It was a beautiful clear day with an unbelievably blue, blue sky that never went away. That was freedom. Every time that I heard the word this is what I imagined. I am not sure how I got that beautiful almost unreal bright deep azure blue color in my mind. Maybe I had seen that color somewhere in Greece on a summer’s day looking at the then still pristine sea. It was more the color of a magical child’s sea. Most likely I had dreamed that color. I remember, after the Occupation, being mildly surprised that that color did not appear. But I could still visualize the color when I wanted to.

Little girl

The Bastille was entered from a hallway from Anthipou, a small street in Pagrati. The hallway had a heavy door made of black iron lattice and semi-transparent glass. If one came into the hallway from the street, the inner door to the Bastille was to the right, which also had semi-transparent glass. A set of stairs further along the hallway led upstairs to the home of the Colonel and his wife. Further along, at the end of the corridor another door opened into a cement courtyard, leading to our small garden. From the cement courtyard there was a circular iron stairway, painted black, that went up to the Colonel’s apartment. The hallway was never well lit and even in the summer it was dark and always cool. The floor was made of a dark, polished stone-like material with bits of gravel and marble, common in hallways and floors in those days. It felt cool in the summer and cold in the winter.

Sometimes in the hallway I would find a little girl. I never knew where the little girl came from or how she got in. She did not belong upstairs and could not have come from the enclosed courtyard. She must have come through the front door of the hallway, which was not locked during the daytime and was heavy to open. The little girl was a bit unkempt and looked hungry but never asked for food. She was not too active and would mostly squat and did not jump or run, the way children do. She seemed to want to play but I could not figure out what kind of game she wanted to play. I think my mother and grandmother knew about the little girl in the hallway and I was allowed to play with her. At least I would not be out in the street, where I was generally not allowed to play during the Occupation. I don’t know the age of the little girl. She was younger than me, maybe about three. The little girl wanted me to squat near her, which I would do. She wanted to show me her pippi. I was reluctant but did not move away because I wanted to play with the little girl. Finally she convinced me. Because she was squatting I had to put my head on the hard, cold hallway floor. There were little things hanging from her pippi. I had not seen a girl’s pippi before, not having a sister, so I was not sure if this is how it should be. I can’t remember if we did end up playing a child’s game, but I think she was content. Later, I told my mother about the little girl and her pippi and the little things hanging. My mother was very angry.

– You are never to play with the little girl again.

– Why, Mommy, why?

I thought she was a nice little girl even though a bit strange.

– She is a dirty little girl that comes from a bad family.

My mother had a way of saying things in a tone full of implication and accusation that always made me feel very badly. I didn’t understand why I would have been allowed to play with the little girl in the first place, if my mother knew she was from such a bad family.

– Why?

– She has worms, worms, worms, she hissed.

I felt badly because my mother was so angry and I did not know what I had done wrong. Could I catch the worms just by looking at them? And how did I know these were worms hanging from the little girl’s pippi? My mother had not seen them to confirm that they were worms.

Maybe all little girls’ pippi looked like that.

The next day the little girl did not come in our hallway.

I never saw her again.

Joujoukos

Yiayia Sophia had been married to my paternal grandfather, who was a great man when they lived in Smyrna, and who had the red rubber cooler on his head when he had the stroke. She said she had a cat phobia for many, many years. I loved my Yiayia Sophia and she loved me. She loved me so much that she agreed to let me have a cat — in spite of her terrible cat phobia. I called the cat Joujoukos.

All Yiayia Sophia asked was that Joujoukos was not to rub against her or try to sit on her lap.

– Cats give me the creeps, she would say.

– Ohh, the creeps Yiayia.

– If Joujoukos even touches me, all the hairs of my skin stand up.

– But why, Yiayia Sophia?

– I don’t know. I have had it for years.

– But why, Yiayia Sophia?

– I told you, I don’t know. I think it started after I had the children.

I was satisfied. That is just how Yiayia Sophia was. The cat phobia had started after her having my father and his brothers. It had nothing to do with Joujoukos. I knew she would faithfully put the best scraps in Joujoukos’ dish, always making sure that the cat was at a safe distance away from her.

Joujoukos was a popular name in the Bastille. It was a made-up name that reminded one of something cute and cuddly. It also reminded people of soujoukakia, the incredibly tasty oval ground meat creations of Smyrna that Yiayia Sophia excelled in making. I don’t think I had tasted soujoukakia during the Occupation (unless it was in the late stages) due to the shortage of meat, but Yiayia Sophia’s soujoukakia would be talked about with great reverence.

One day Joujoukos became very excited. He had smelled meat being cooked and disappeared to investigate. We had all smelled it! It was the unmistakable aroma of meat being fried and it came from upstairs where the Colonel and his wife lived. Of course meat of any kind would be generally unobtainable, except through the black market or worse. A piece of meat large enough and of sufficient quality to fry, like a steak, would be an unthinkable luxury. Frying during the Occupation was often done on little table-top gas stoves, similar to today’s camping stoves, called a gaziera. The gaziera was said to be dangerous. A few had exploded, badly burning people around them.

Suddenly, from the Colonel’s apartment there was a huge commotion and racket. There was shouting and swearing and a great loud crash — shouts to turn the gaziera off, that it had been knocked down, and something about fire. We ran out on the cement courtyard to see what the commotion was. The Colonel’s wife was out on the top of the circular iron staircase waving her slipper, while the Colonel could be heard swearing and banging his walking stick.

All of a sudden Joujoukos flew through the air, past the Colonel’s wife, with his jaws locked on a piece of meat — a steak, no less. Apparently the cat had to make a quick decision. He could either go through the Colonel’s wife and her thrashing slipper, or go back through the Colonel and his heavy walking stick, or jump from the top of the iron staircase, two floors down onto the cement courtyard. Brave, brave, incomparable Joujoukos chose the latter. Being a cat he landed on his feet, never letting the steak go and shot through the back door of the hallway and out the front door, both of which happened to be open.

The commotion had also attracted a number of neighbors who stuck their heads out of back windows or came out on the little balconies from the apartment buildings facing the back of the Bastille. Joujoukos had knocked down the lit gaziera with the hot frying pan and the sizzling steak. Somehow he had managed to grab the steak.

– Thief, thief, THIEF … , screeched the Colonel’s wife.

– Kill that cat, shouted the Colonel in his heavy voice.

He was used to giving orders. Even if it was to no one in particular.

Kyra Maria was the first on the battle-scene from our side, and immediately raised the alarm.

– Kyria Sophia, KYRIA SOPHIA … , she shouted in a voice that could be heard across the neighborhood.

– Come quickly, they are going to kill Joujoukos; they are going to kill our cat … !

She was squealing at the top of a voice that made the windows rattle. It is not clear where the saintly woman had suddenly found a voice like a wartime siren. I guess the nuns had prepared her for all contingencies.

Yiayia Sophia was on the little cement courtyard in a flash. Her response was instantaneous and magnificent. She put her hands on her hips and looked straight up at the Colonel and his wife. Her index finger started to wave.

– YOU, she shouted. You have nearly injured my cat. This cat, which I love as much as my own children! This lovely cat, which I pet all the time.

There was a brief moment of stunned silence from the Colonel and his wife. They had heard chapter and verse about Yiayia’s phobia. From Yiayia Sophia herself.

– What right do you have abusing my cat?

Yiayia Sophia continued to shout, having obtained a strategic advantage and now waving her finger ever more pointedly at the enemies of Joujoukos.

– Oh yes, yes, chimed in Kyra Maria, this wonderful cat that sits on Kyria Sophia’s lap. Kyria Sophia who has lost her husband and is a wartime widow. And this kind cat who keeps her company when she has no one else …

Then the commentary from the watching neighbors started to come in, with increasing volume.

– It is not fair to abuse a cat.

– Especially a cat that is such a good cat, that sits on Kyria Sophia’s lap. Who after all is a wartime widow …

– It is shameful to beat a cat that has done nothing wrong.

The chatter increased. Being able to get meat, let alone a steak, during the Occupation was never mentioned once. Praise of Joujoukos and the physical affection Yiayia Sophia lavished on him dominated the loudly exchanged gossip across back windows and balconies.

It was game over! The Colonel and his wife retreated mumbling and slammed their door shut.

But it got better still. Joujoukos, with the steak never leaving his mouth, had run into the street, bee-lined for the closest wooden telephone post, right across from the Bastille, scampered up and perched on the cross bar among the electrical connectors. There he surveyed his kingdom and feeling sufficiently out of danger, started chewing on his possession. A number of neighbors came out and watched in admiration. The commentary continued to flow.

– What a brave cat!

– We should have more cats like this.

– Yes, we need cats like this!

– Especially during these times!

– For sure. Especially during this Occupation!

Of course the word spread that this was really my cat. I remember a feeling of pride almost overwhelming me. My Joujoukos, Joujoukos mou, Joujoukaki mou! Unbelievably, Joujoukos and I had carried out a stroke against the black market.

Collaborators be warned! I was now somebody in the neighborhood. For who would not recognize the owner of Joujoukos? I no longer needed to feel inferior because I was not allowed to go with the urchins. Joujoukos and I had done our bit against the Occupation.

Family

My father was the second oldest of four brothers. There were no sisters in his family. My father, his three brothers, my mother, Yiayia Sophia and I all lived together in the Bastille during the Occupation. All the brothers were professionals but there was not much work to be found during the Occupation, so a lot of time was spent together at home in the Bastille. As the only child in the household, there must have been a lot of attention lavished on me. However, for me it was normal. Perhaps because of this, I loved my uncles. The four brothers always had animated discussions. There was competition among them as to who could solve a problem best or who was the most important. This also seemed normal to me.

Yiayia Sophia had later told me that, my grandfather, the great man of Smyrna, had decreed that each of the four boys would train in a profession that represented the four pillars of the Greek state. I am not sure if the decree was issued before the catastrophe of 1922 or after. The pillars were: engineering, the armed forces, mathematics, and medicine. The pillars were to be erected in that order, which was according to descending age of the boys. My father entered an academy for the armed forces (the Navy actually) at a very young age. Quite by chance, he escaped a career in the Navy and went into agriculture, but this is another story.

The oldest of the uncles was Stelios. He had bright blue eyes that darted around and he was interested in everything. He was a civil engineer. I was told that he was the first of the family to get a job before the war, but I don’t think he had a full time job during the Occupation. Stelios obviously thought that my young age should be no barrier to learning all kinds of things particularly if they were to be found in an old, illustrated encyclopedia that we had in the house. So, he taught me, with great animation, the names of the planets, names of the great biologists that were in the encyclopedia (Darwin, Lamarck, Cuvier, etcetera) and of the great painters. Soon I was able to recognize the pictures of the planets, and of the biologists and the painters in the encyclopedia. I would parrot their names, as I don’t think I could read yet.

Stelios had tuberculosis when he was young which affected both shoulders, so he was not able to lift his arms over his head. He had a unique way of lifting things and pointing because of this. He also could not serve in the war because of his disability, so he was around the house throughout most of my early childhood. It seemed to me that he had the most encyclopedic knowledge and amazing memory among the brothers. He knew about every artist, writer and poet in Greece, and abroad it seemed. He wrote stories and little poems and even had a drawing exhibition in the Bastille.

Stelios’ room was next to the dining room and this is where the drawing exhibition was held. His room faced the wall so his window looked towards the small cement courtyard. This was the same courtyard where Joujoukos, the great Resistance hero, had fallen while holding the steak in his mouth. This room was also a bit dark, but this was ideal for the exhibition as it turned out. For this was no ordinary drawing exhibit. It was made up of pen and ink drawings that were caricatures of wartime political figures. I am not sure how many of these caricatures were by his own hand and how many contributed by friends. They satirized mostly the Occupation and the war and were quite cutting. Lots of friends would come around to view the caricatures and comment while the exhibit was running. So, it was just as well it was in a back dark room, so it would not attract much attention. One caricature I remember best. It had amusing profiles of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and my mother. The caption read something like 'decisive leaders'. I thought my mother might be mad but she loved it. Everybody thought it was quite funny. Her reputation of being a bit of a dictator was widespread among friends. I remember my father exuding pride over the caricature.

Yianis, the second youngest among my uncles had become a mathematician. I remember less of Yianis than the other uncles during the Occupation in the Bastille. He may have stayed there only part of the time and may already have been working at the University of Salonika. Later he became well-known in mathematics and rose to become president in that Institution. He was always very nice to me but I do not remember being very close to him. He married Toula, who was lovely. Toula also taught Greek literature in high school and was a most favorite aunt. She was a blue-eyed blonde who was always smiling and really nice to me. Toula had a beautiful, trained operatic voice. I loved to hear her sing. She would sing usually after supper. After she had finished I would always ask that she sing another song or aria and she would always oblige. I am not sure if it was during the Occupation that Toula would come to the Bastille regularly or if it was after the war. Toula had studied music and operatic singing at the Odeon in Athens, the premium music school. Much later she had told me that the great opera singer Maria Callas was a classmate of hers in the Odeon and that she used to get better marks in singing than Callas, who apparently was not that good a student.

Maria, who was usually called Litsa, was my mother’s first cousin from the island of Zakynthos, where my mother was also born. Litsa was also studying in Salonika but used to visit the Bastille regularly. However, most of her visits were after the Occupation, when Yianis and Toula were already in Salonika. Through her years in Salonika she became very friendly with Yianis and Toula and would always have news about them. Litsa was also a favorite aunt as she was quiet, considerate and self-effacing to an unusual degree for a Greek. She was quite a bit younger than my mother and I felt she was the closest person to my age among the relatives. Litsa was studying biology in Salonika and had become infatuated with a well-known professor in Biology there. This man’s name was an alliteration of a common spice. So the adults would often make a pun of it when asking Litsa for an update of the real or imaginary affair. Litsa was always good-humored about it. She would spend endless time gossiping with mother about Professor Spice and what sounded like his multiple love affairs. I was allowed to sit in through much of this gossip, although I did not understand a lot of it. I remember feeling very grown-up when Litsa would visit again and I would ask her if she had any 'spicy' news. She would always smile and include me again in the update. That is also why I liked her so much.

Thales was the youngest of the four brothers. Tall and good looking, and highly personable, he was perhaps my most favorite of the uncles. He had a really easy manner and talked to me as if we were equals, or as if I was grown-up. That is why I liked him so much. He must have liked me a lot too because he became my nonόs (god-father). As that he had special responsibilities towards me. Thales had finished medical school and had specialized in otolaryngology, so he looked after quite a few children. I had the feeling that my father did not consider Thales to be all that great. A physician in those days was considered to be low down in the pecking order. In this competitive family of highly achieving professionals, a 'doc' was well below a great civil engineer, and even further below a great mathematician. However, it was Thales that often managed to bring home the few essentials during the Occupation. It was what he brought home that probably kept us all from starving. At a time when the currency had totally collapsed there was virtually nothing to be bought. Even hundreds of millions of drachmas would buy very little of what little there was to buy. But people would always find a few vegetables, perhaps a few eggs or cheese, to compensate the doctor for his medical service. They would find whatever was needed especially if it was their children who were sick. My recollection is that Thales would continue to bring in food items after the Occupation, during the Civil War and even after that.

Thales had a very close friend, who was a school mate of his in medical school. His name was Abraham and he came from one of the old, well-established Jewish families of Athens. Tall and good looking, like Thales, Abraham also had that confident easy manner and spoke to me on equal terms. So Abraham became a favorite too. I would follow Thales and Abraham around and listen to their endless discussions in the Bastille. A regular important event was when the illegal broadcasts of the BBC news would come on over the short wave radio with the magical little green light. Abraham understood English, French and German better than the rest of the family so he interpreted the crackly broadcast with more confidence. Abraham was fearless and he may have joined the underground but I am not certain. In any case, this would not have been discussed in front of me in case we were arrested and tortured. I remember the discussions when the first news about putting the Jews in camps first started coming out. At least I think I remember the original discussions, but what I remember may have been reinforced in later times. In any case, Abraham and Thales did not believe these first reports.

Thales and Abraham would always round out each other’s pronouncements, nodding in agreement as some­times each completed the other’s sentence.

– It makes no sense to waste precious resources in the middle of the War by building camps to exterminate people, isn’t that so, Thales?

– … they could have just as easily exterminated them by working them and starving them to death, Abraham.

– For sure, Thales, they could easily starve them to death building autobahns and railways …

– … and munitions factories.

– … and chemical factories.

Everybody in the Bastille seemed to agree that the Nazis were cruel enough to carry out the exterminations of whole populations. But it seemed totally un-German and illogical for the Germans to waste scarce resources to do so. And if there was one thing the Greeks were certain about Germans, it was that the Germans were not illogical.


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